“The Documents Are Not Available”

On Thursday, February 25th — one day before the Radio Preservation Task Force‘s inaugural conference — I traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet up with friend and colleague, Dr. Christopher Terry, who was also attending the conference. Like me, Dr. Terry is a media law and policy scholar who hails from Wisconsin. And also like me, Dr. Terry has been watching with interest the FCC’s foray into definining journalism on the public airwaves.

In his classes, Dr. Terry uses the Commission’s $44,000 fine against WLS-AM for airing newscasts produced by Workers Independent News as a teaching point to explore the FCC’s regulation of sponsored content. In prior posts, I’ve explained how Workers Independent News purchases airtime on selected commercial radio stations to air its newscasts and features. The FCC case stemmed from WLS-AM’s failure to run the required disclaimer that WIN had paid for its own airtime in a small fraction of broadcasts.

But when the FCC decided to sock WLS with such a stiff fine, it made WIN’s legitimacy as a news organization key to its rationale. Unprecedented in the history of U.S. broadcast regulation, the FCC effectively declared Workers Independent News to not be news, thereby justifying such a large forefiture.

Shortly after the FCC’s 2014 decision, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency for all documents related to its decisionmaking process in the WLS case. Last November, FCC attorneys reported back that they had identified several thousand pages of material…but released less than 90 redacted pages. Among them was the original complaint that kicked off the FCC’s inquiry, which defamed Workers Independent News as an activist organization masquerading as a news outlet. It was on this allegation that the FCC seemed to rest its case. Read More

O’Rielly Outlines Anti-Pirate Agenda for 2016

Speaking at the Country Radio Seminar last week, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly laid out several items he’d like to make part of radio’s regulatory agenda this year. And true to form, the man who’s made pirate radio a personal crusade has big plans to try and wipe out what he calls “poison ivy in the garden of the radio spectrum.”

O’Rielly acknowledged that the largest concentrations of unlicensed broadcasters are in America’s cities, such as New York, Boston, and Miami, but claims that “the problem is expanding rapidly,” and it represents “an attack on the integrity of our airwaves – an attack that must be confronted and defeated on no uncertain terms, lest it continue to push forward.” Read More

Window Brings Surge of Translator Deals

On Friday, the FCC opened a six-month filing window for AM broadcasters to acquire existing FM translators, and move them up to 250 miles into their local coverage areas. This is part of the agency’s AM revitalization initiative — though it’s still not exactly clear how FM spectrum fixes AM’s fundamental difficulties.

This window is exclusive to lower-power AM broadcasters; the large “flamethrower” stations will get a crack at the translator shuffle later this summer, and then the FCC plans to open an application window for new translator stations next year. The marketplace for translators, which has been simmering mightily underground for nearly a decade, has fully burst into the mainstream with the FCC’s blessing. Read More

Extinction-Level Event For Small Commercial U.S. Webcasters?

Right before the holidays, and with little fanfare, the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board released its revised rate-structure for the music royalties streaming audio services must pay. Not surprisingly, large “pure-play” services like Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music saw their rates per-song/per-listener increase (though they say they can weather the increased cost), while terrestrial AM/FM radio broadcasters actually caught a break. No change for noncommercial webcasters, who play a flat yearly fee up until they hit a certain song/listener threshold (which the vast majority never do).

However, the CRB rates do not include special carve-outs for small, indepdendent, commercial webcasters, who (since 2008-9) typically pay a percentage of their revenue to satisfy the royalty gods. In the past, these deals have been negotiated between this constituency and SoundExchange, the music industry’s streaming royalty-clearinghouse in charge of collecting and disbursing royalty payments, and then codified into the CRB’s rate structure. Read More

FCC Pirate Radio Enforcement Drops to 2004 Levels

This year has been fairly unremarkable regarding the FCC’s unlicensed broadcast efforts: just 111 actions against a few dozen stations across 10 states. However, the overwhelming majority (76%) of enforcement efforts this year have been have been focused on the FM dials of New York and New Jersey. This is a clear sign of the broadcast industry’s active involvement in the enforcement process, acting as a conduit for complaints on which the FCC follows up.

That said, enforcement tactics remain almost wholly administrative. Only five Notices of Apparent Liability totalling $70,000 have been issued this year, while just one fine of $20,000 has been levied against a pirate radio operator. In every case, the FCC built up at least six months’ of evidence; in some instances (particularly involving pirates facing threats of fines in New Jersey), the unlicensed broadcasters have been on the agency’s radar since 2012. Read More